Xochiquetzal is a 22-minute Chamber Concerto for Violin and Percussion Sextet. Xochiquetzal was designed as a companion piece to Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra (1950). It is also a companion to my own previous composition for percussion ensemble, El día de los muertos (2006). El día de los muertos and Xochiquetzal are both programmatic works based on Mexican subjects. Both contain folk melodies, and both may be performed with dancers.
Xochiquetzal was an ancient Mayan goddess associated with music, dance, beauty, love, fertility, and female sexual power. She is a similar figure to Aphrodite or Venus in Greek and Roman mythology. The name “Xochiquetzal” (So-chee-KET-sal) means “feather flower,” combining the Nahuatl words for “feather” (quetzal) and “flower” (xochitl). Xochiquetzal is always portrayed as young, beautiful and richly attired, accompanied by hummingbirds and surrounded by yellow marigolds. Marigolds were Xochiquetzal’s signature flower, and they were said to have sprung magically from her tears. Her consort was Tlaloc, the powerful and terrifying God of Thunder and Rain, with whom she had a tempestuous relationship.
To evoke the ancient Mayan world, I present simple pentatonic themes in the spirit of what Manuel de Falla called “imaginary folk music.” In the final movement, there is a quotation of “Xtoles” (Shi-TO-les), an ancient Mayan dance song notated by the Spaniards after the conquest of Mexico. Believed to be one of the oldest known melodies it also appears in my 2001 musical version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, set in pre-Columbian Mexico. These folk materials interact, and sometimes clash, with contemporary sounds to create a synthesis of time periods and cultures.
The violin solo represents Xochiquetzal throughout, and the writing is virtuosic with frequent multiple stops and extensive use of the upper register. The percussion scoring emphasizes pitched instruments (two vibraphones, two marimbas, crotales, glockenspiel, chimes, timpani, seven tuned roto-toms and six tuned nipple gongs) with a wide variety of exotic, non-pitched sounds. Each movement employs a distinctive timbre in keeping with its subject:
Xochiquetzal makes a graceful entrance, accompanied by bowed vibraphone and glass wind chimes to depict her retinue of hummingbirds; the music then grows more spirited to show her power. (II) A seductive, incantatory love spell follows with delicate nipple gongs, and the movement gradually builds in intensity. (III) Tlaloc then appears in an ominous and eventually violent Toccata featuring timpani, roto-toms, bass drum, tam-tam, thunder tube and thunder sheet. Following Tlaloc’s stormy visit, there is a mournful Adagio (IV), depicting Xochiquetzal’s tears, which are represented by crotales, glockenspiel, brass wind chimes, and gently rippling violin arpeggios. The Finale (V) is a rhythmic celebration of music and dance spiced with cow bells, temple blocks, and shakers and featuring a violin cadenza. The “Xtoles” melody joins the other themes, stacked together in a grand quodlibet.
I completed the score in Dallas in June, 2014 in response to a commission from a consortium of percussion ensembles from The New England Conservatory, Frank Epstein, Director; Southern Methodist University, Jon Lee, Director; The State University of New York at Onondaga, Robert Bridge, Director; and The University of North Texas, Christopher Deane, Director. Frank Epstein conducted the premiere performance in November, 2014 in Boston.
— Robert Xavier Rodríguez